The season really couldn't have started off much worse for Tulsa.
The defending Conference USA champions have matched last season's loss total in just four games. TU was blown off the field by Bowling Green, run out of the stadium by Oklahoma and slapped off their home field by Iowa State.
To make matters worse, the Hurricane is seriously short on players and experience.
The NCAA denied wide receiver Bryan Burnham's eligibility just prior to the season while star wideout Keyarris Garrett will miss the rest of the year with an injury. Defensive leader Marco Nelson was suspended for the season due to academic issues, leaving linebacker Shawn Jackson as the only returning starter from last year's record-setting defensive unit.
But despite the hordes of negativity, there is one key number Tulsa fans need to remember – 0-0 – TU's 2013 conference record.
That number changes Saturday as C-USA west rival Rice comes to town in what will be Tulsa's biggest game of the year. If TU wants a chance to repeat its C-USA title, Saturday's showdown is a must-win game.
"I think it's even more needed now," coach Bill Blankenship said. It's a (discussion) we would have even if we were 3-1 or 4-0. Whatever you have done to this point, you really have to put it behind you. You've got to take this (Rice) game as the first game that will help define what you're doing later in postseason play."
Blankenship hit the nail on the head. This is the first and only game that matters this season. Think back to last year, when Tulsa put together a magical 11-3 campaign and won the Liberty Bowl. TU still blew a lead and lost to Iowa State, and played a stinker in a narrow loss at Arkansas. The Hurricane's nonconference schedule didn't go as they wanted, but the season still resulted in a conference title.
Offensive lineman Stetson Burnett echoed Blankenship's comments and said he's excited for a clean slate.
"I think we're all kind of forward to start 0-0 again and kind of getting a new restart, and really showing how we play football," Burnett said. "What we did the last four games isn't how we play."
Here's exactly why Saturday's game is so huge:
1. Rice is pretty good. They put up a great fight at Texas A&M, lost a narrow contest against Houston, and beat Kansas and Florida Atlantic. Odds are, the winner of the west division is going to be either Tulsa or Rice.
2. Rice's schedule is somewhere between "creampuff" and "cupcake." There are only a few tough opponents left in the recently-gutted Conference USA, and Rice plays almost none of them. The Owls avoided East Carolina and Marshall this season, while Tulsa has to play both. In short, there aren't many potential losses on Rice's schedule.
3. Building off the previous point, if Tulsa loses this game, they'll not only be a game behind Rice, they'll lose the head-to-head tiebreaker. That means TU would have to likely run the table and hope for Rice to lose at least twice the rest of the way – which is highly unlikely. But – if Tulsa can top the Owls, it will put them in the driver's seat on the road to another C-USA title game appearance.
4. For TU, a loss would likely end any hopes of a repeat title, but it would also severely hinder any bowl hopes. A 1-4 record would make Tulsa win five of its last seven games just to make a bowl game. Tulsa has made a bowl in three straight years and surely wants to extend that streak this season.
The season hasn't been easy on the eyes for Tulsa fans, but that can all change Saturday afternoon with a Golden Hurricane win.